- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2018

Evgeny Kuznetsov is the highest-scoring player in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After his Washington Capitals won Game 3 of the finals 3-1 to take a 2-1 series lead, the Russian center invoked the name of another high scorer: Michael Jordan.

Kuznetsov suffered an upper-body injury in Game 2 and was listed as a game-time decision to play Saturday night, but didn’t miss a beat. He assisted Alex Ovechkin’s goal, then added one of his own to lift the Capitals to victory.

“It’s emotional stuff,” Kuznetsov said. “Like Michael Jordan, when he play his best game — he got hurt, got 53 points.”

Was Kuznetsov comparing himself to Michael Jordan? No — he laughed off such a comparison, but was happy to explain further.

“I mean like when you’re hurt, you play a little better always,” he said. “You have extra energy. Sometimes it’s even better for you when you watch the hockey from upstairs a little bit and you see a few things a little bit. It’s just so emotional.”

The record will show that Michael Jordan scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics when returning from a broken foot. He also scored 38 in the famous “Flu Game.”

But Kuznetsov’s rapid return from an injury sustained only three days prior — and his excellence throughout this postseason — may end up cementing a place for the Russian in Washington sports lore.

Kuznetsov missed most of Game 2 after sustaining a hit from Brayden McNabb. He was clutching his left arm after the play, but it started to feel better “when we get that win,” he said.

Sometime between Friday’s practice and Saturday’s, Kuznetsov was medically cleared to play. He said he knew he felt ready to play Game 3 by Saturday morning.

“I woke up, feel a little better again. I feel like I can help the team, and it end up working pretty well for us,” Kuznetsov said.

Kuznetsov has led the NHL in points approximately since the conference finals began; the two he recorded Saturday brought him to 27. Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Bure are the only Russians to tally more points than that in a single Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The center’s assist came when he put a shot on Fleury during a heavy Washington attack. His and John Carlson’s shots were stonewalled, but the rush allowed Ovechkin to score on a rebound.

Kuznetsov’s goal, his 12th of the postseason, came 11 minutes later on an elongated shift. He was on the ice for a stretch of 1:25 because he jumped on at the end of a Capitals power play.

The lines were scrambled as a result, and Kuznetsov was playing with T.J. Oshie and Jay Beagle. Oshie went to his knees to knock a loose puck to Beagle, who had a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov for the remaining two-thirds of the ice.

The center is generous with the puck, but in that moment, he had to shoot.

“I think the shot, it’s not my strong side,” Kuznetsov said with an affable grin. “But that situation, we got 2-on-1, I look for the Beags and when you have a chance to feed those guys who play on the PK a lot, who block a lot of shots, you want to make that pass for him. But he wasn’t open that time and I have to shoot.”

Beagle agreed that Kuznetsov’s durability is overlooked when compared with Ovechkin’s.

“He’s very reliable, very durable,” Beagle said. “Obviously, O has been here a lot longer, so you see that when he’s not missing any games and the way he plays his style. But very durable. Kuzy’s very reliable, doesn’t miss much.”

Coach Barry Trotz had little to add.

“I thought he was outstanding. What did you think?” he quipped.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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